When: 24-28 March 2016
Who: Me, Liane, Jerome and Mark
What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word “France”? I guess most would say Paris or the Eiffel Tower. Correct… but France has so much more to offer! Especially if driving 1200 miles in 4.5 days doesn’t seem too discouraging. This year I chose to turn typical Polish Easter (read: eggs, more eggs, and white sausages) into wine and champagne… or to be precise, litres of wine and champagne. A long weekend of sophisticated liquors, typical French cuisine and beautiful views is definitely a recipe for success. Champagne, Burgundy and Loire Valley in a soft-top? Bring friends with a sensible car (and massive boot) and off you go!
Visiting the Champagne region at the end of March maybe wasn’t the worst idea ever but these ones who chose warmer months or the grape harvest time (Sept-Oct) may have a greater chance to admire more than just fields of wooden sticks rising from the ground. Even without the greenery we did enjoy the view and since the fields of wooden sticks are located in Champagne on picturesque hills, the landscape was definitely more interesting than that in Cambridge. Right, so what to do in Champagne? Obviously, drink Champagne! But where?!
Due to limited time, we moved straight to the heart of the region – Épernay. The entire wealth of the town is hidden under the ground, so searching for sights may be a bit of a waste of time. Épernay is primarily a network of underground cellars with a length of about 110 km filled with over 200 million bottles of champagne, waiting patiently to be opened… Champagne capital? Definitely yes! It’s here where the most famous Champagne houses entice visitors with the lure of champagne tasting, cellar tours and, of course, shopping. Our champagne adventure began after a typical French breakfast (pan au chocolat and coffee), on the Avenue de Champagne in one of the most polished and definitely the largest (with 28km of cellars) champagne house in the region – Moët & Chandon. I am not exaggerating by saying that the cellars are both labyrinthine and jaw-dropping. They really are impressive. After a quick tour and a lesson on making bubbly I was definitely ready to try my first REAL glass of champagne.
“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” is rumoured to be what monk Dom Perignon exclaimed during the first tasting of his newly discovered Champagne. Although this story has nothing to do with the truth, (wines fermenting in the bottles have been a huge affliction for winemakers at a time when Dom Perignon was working on improving the quality of wines), it is worth visiting the small town Hautvillers where this famous monk was buried. We chose Hautvillers to stop for lunch in the traditional French brasserie Lé Café d’Hautvillers (www.cafe-hautvillers.fr/) and to stock up on our first round of Champagne (a dozen bottles). Consecutive tastings and the subsequent purchases loaded our friends’ boot enough to be able to move our way to the next region – Burgundy – without any remorse.
Do you remember a cartoon about twelve little girls that always walked in pairs, and the youngest of them was called Madeline? The girls lived in an old house in Paris and I believe that for the rest of my life I will associate this house with France. Near Chablis, in a house very similar to this, we spent our second night. Imagine sitting on a balcony in the evening listening to crickets chirping and the distant sound of a stream. Oh, I almost forgot. There is a glass of wine in your hand too! What’s not to like about that?
If you are white wine fans, you should definitely keep Chablis on your route. Chablis is considered to be one of the best white wines in the world! In short: fresh, mineral with a delicate acidity. For those of you who want to try as many different producers as possible, I can strongly recommend La Chablisienne; a cooperative that brings together around 300 winemakers and produces about 30 so-called “Crus” every year. Although I didn’t fall in love with Chablis, the tasting of 8 different types of this wine transferred the memory of its taste into the area of my brain that will remember it for a long time. Besides, I must admit that morning tastings have a very positive effect on the rest of the day.
About 4 hours lay between us and the region, which for a long time has been on my (and I imagine other peoples’) bucket list. The Loire Valley. The ultimate destination was Saumur with a little detour en route to Blois. Following the road signs we found ourselves on the south bank of the river. This was lucky, as it gave us a great opportunity to admire the city panorama and the massive bridge that connected both sides of Loire river. Blois was built on two hills, resulting in winding and steep streets finished with long stairs running through the city. One of them leads to the medieval castle (Château de Blois), which is located in the heart of the city on a high slope. A view worth climbing for!
After two days that began with with a glass of wine in my hand, I really could not wait for day #3 to get on the bike and explore the area. Even the weather was on my side! Candes-Saint-Martin is considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. It’s worth noticing that the French villages are nothing like our Polish ones (or rather, I would probably say that Polish towns are far from being as nice as the very picturesque French ones). Narrow streets, beautiful cottages built of bright stone, the place where the two big rivers Vienna and Loire meet together. There is something romantic in Candes-Saint-Martin…
Our bike tour ended up in the rain (so much for the concept of beautiful weather) so we had no choice but to go to Saumur by car. On the way there very original architecture can be seen – cave grottoes. In addition to their original residential purpose, they are also used as storage areas for wine (not surprising) or mushroom farming. We were a step away from renting one but a comfortable bed in the château won. Anyway, our last point of the tour was Saumur which is primarily associated with the Château de Saumur, a fabulous castle erected high above the city. The place can be reached either by a car (lazy people) or simply by a quick hike (people who don’t know that there is an easy way – ekhm now we know). The view is literally breathtaking! This is one of those places you cannot miss out on! Our tour would certainly not be complete if we did not try the local alcohol. The Loire Valley is famous for its sparkling wines and red wines produced from grape varieties of cabernet franc. The ones we had the opportunity to try had the characteristic tobacco flavour.
I have to say that a trip mainly focused on alcohol tasting, wasn’t initially my idea of a perfect gateway (I can almost hear you saying how weird I am). I am not ashamed to admit that I was wrong and our four-day retreat proved to be 100% successful! Leaving the Loire Valley, I felt, however, that I only managed to sample the region and there is still much more to discover. The return is only a matter of time! When it comes to wine and champagne, I did not find my super hit during the tour, but later in Cambridge I discovered the white Chinon wine (bought by our friends in the Loire Valley!), which undoubtedly became my number one.